I came to know of Mr. Schwyzer through twitter. Specifically I was introduced by a friend on twitter who had asked that anyone retweeting or quoting him should ‘Google him’ before elevating his voice. I took her advice and did just that – visiting his page, several blogs critiquing him and a few other sites that posted his work. After reading up on his history, seeing his connection with projects I already held suspect (Jezebel and The Good Men Project in particular) I felt safe in knowing I wanted to avoid him and any of his ‘work.’ The problem is that he keeps popping up: friends or folks I admire signal-boost via twitter, post articles featuring him, and/or further the debate on the validity of his presence in feminist space. This has begun to reach its peak over a month ago when he wrote a really exploitive (w/o permission of the previous partner) blog entry about ‘assisting’ in a partner’s tampon removal. I rarely shy away from topics such as tampons and I even love body horror movies – but Schwyzer’s piece revealed a total sleaze ball posing as a ‘sensitive guy’ (http://www.xojane.com/sex/on-digging-out-my-ex-wifes-tampon).
There is a reason I take the issue of Mr. Schwyzer and the voice he carries on the Internet to heart. There have been multiple times where people in my life have discounted my boundaries and exploited a relationship – hurting and causing me to question the validity of my own feelings. I was a victim of domestic violence. I grew up in a home where abuse was normalized, at age 15 I was sexually assaulted and then by age 17 I was engaged to marry a guy 9 years older than me who was emotionally and increasingly physically abusive. A year later we lived together in a small apartment where he worked nights and I attended community college on scholarship. I was economically dependant on him, which only furthered the power structure that had been brewing since I had met him the year before.
First let me say there is far too much pathologizing of victims of domestic violence. The idea that to be in a relationship with an abuser means that you have some kind of problem with your psyche focuses the ‘problem’ on the abused rather than the abuser. We can only speak to our own experiences, and the abused have been told by their abusers and ‘rescuers’ alike that they cannot trust themselves. This is how abuse starts chipping away at a person’s center so that they cannot trust their gut to make a choice (be it one about housing, sex, food choice, or job) for themselves. The reality for me was that I was young, poor, afraid, and mimicking the kind of relationship I had seen played out by my parents and the dominant culture. Being with a guy who was older, who claimed the identities of ‘liberal’ and ‘anti-authoritarian’ was an easy route to validation in a time and a place where I was denied self-actualization.
My abusive partner and I broke up by the time I was nineteen just as I began to forge an identity as an adult in the world. For as damaging as the relationship was – it was the slow ending of our ‘partnership’ that hurt the most. In any break up when a couple attempts to stay friends – the reassertion of boundaries is the hardest. Footpaths into our hearts and minds by exes are now dangerous reassertions of unwelcome patterns. An abuser especially knows how to push back on any new attempt at boundaries. These are people who uses the power associated with their various privileges (age, race, gender/sex, job, citizenship, etc…) to challenge the abused’s inner compass. I had to ask my ex to stop coming to my job to ‘shop’. Because it was a record store known for its varied selection (in a town with very little to do after 8 pm) he framed this as a hardship on him, and my assertion of space as a ‘over-reaction problem’. Why was I keeping him from something cool? Why couldn’t I just avoid him, go work in another section, or hang out in the back? Why was I making such a big deal out of it? Our break up had been long and messy – had already involved several loud fights and police intervention. Friends had taken sides and custody of the cats had been decided. I was tired, and worn down and just barely 19. I didn’t want to have to tell him that just seeing him made me sick, that I wanted to just sit down give up on what progress I had made in my own healing and cry, that it brought back not just the horrors of him throwing things at my face, but all of the history of my childhood that brought me to that very moment. I didn’t want to have to bear my soul to justify he find a fucking Siousie and the Banshees CD somewhere else.
Abuse can be obvious acts – but more often than not it is subtle. It is the small things that make up the day in a relationship that reveal an imbalance of power and respect. Personally I have found the concept of microaggressions (microaggressions.com & wiki entry) as the best way to explain how the words and actions considered by most as ‘small things’ that a more privileged person does to a disempowered person of living in an abusive situation (for me). It wasn’t the screaming, or the hitting but the constant questioning any time I had made a decision. It was never enough to simply hear my request of ‘stop’ or ‘I’d like’ or ‘that hurts me’ to change his behavior.
Posed with the idea that a victim or survivor of abuse may be upset by Mr. Schwyzer’s prominence in the feminist movement he says “I’ve heard from people who feel encouraged by my work as well as those who feel very upset by it. It provokes strong positive and negative reactions from different people. At some point – not to throw this back in your lap – this is more an editorial decision than anything else.” So those upset by his presence are erased because some are not, and really – it isn’t his fault that he’s on XO Jane because, darn it, they are offering that space. It is true that every blog, journal, and newspaper should vet their writers. But the bigger question is what kind of answer is that from a person who seeks to end power dynamics across genders and wants to end abuse? Are we not supposed to own our actions as much as we can control them?
When Mr. Schwyzer says in the same interview “ …this notion of “making room” in the blogosphere is based on a faulty premise of scarcity. … Look at most of the people whose work you publish; few are privileged white middle-aged men. People are free to click past me, to ignore me, to move on to the wealth of other writers who appear on sites like yours or at Jezebel.” (http://www.xojane.com/issues/hugo-schwyzer-controversy)
Is he really posing that the issue on XOJane or Jezebel really that there aren’t enough privileged white dudes on these sites? Or that the feminist sphere of the Internet doesn’t have enough white dudes? Are these the voices that are missing? Yes, men should be part of the feminist movement, but is their role as dominant voices? I think the heavily trafficked/mainstream feminist blogs need to do work seeking out and making space for the voices of women of color, queer folks, disabled folks, trans folks, folks in rural areas, folks w/o a US centric world view. Not a dude women studies professors who tried to kill a girlfriend and then apparently wants a fucking cookie for not submitting papers to National Women’s Studies Association.
About 6 years after my break up with my ex I had gotten a call on my cell – from a number didn’t recognize. Checking the voice-mail later it was a woman – asking if I had dated my ex, and if he had been abusive while I was with him. My heart broke in two hearing her voice – she sounded young, unsure, needed some kind of assurance that whatever happening wasn’t her ‘fault.’ I gathered some resources and left her a voice-mail back with a few hotlines to call – simply saying whatever she was feeling in the relationship was valid and she should trust her gut. The next day my abusive ex called my mother’s house and left some rambling message about ‘his confused girlfriend.’ His pattern of trying to control and contextualize the situation was reestablished.
I am not saying that Mr. Schwyzer isn’t working his steps, isn’t striving to be a better person – or even a more feminist person. But there are a thousand fucking ways to ‘do feminism’ – to be the kind of change we want in our communities. We model feminism and anti-oppression by the words we choose in our daily conversations, how we treat our neighbors and the folks on the bus, where we shop and whom we vote for. Asking Mr. Schwyzer not promote himself as an ‘expert on gender justice’ (words from his site) is not the same as asking him to not be a feminist. It is saying that your actions have meant that when you take up space as an ‘authority’ (conferred through publishing, speaking engagements, and so on) it is a continuation of abuse. The world is not hurting for white cis dudes (and honestly – white cis ladies as well) to have their voice lifted, lent credence and authority when discussing established power structures. More simply – Mr. Schwyzer: we will not miss you. Your ‘gems’ of getting all hot and bothered while supposedly helping out your ex wife deal with a traumatic medical situation will not make the internet devoid of nuance or understanding of sexism, of the male perspective, or in how to make the world a better place. In fact – if there was less Mr. Schwyzer, and talk of him maybe we could talk about how us white ladies need to shut the hell up and instead signal boost (as in sit and listen rather than speak for/speak over) those more disenfranchised than us.